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Festival of Faith Sermon

by

the Rev. Geoffrey Kirk (Forward in Faith, UK)

copyright 2001, and all rights retained by Fr. Kirk

 

St. Luke's Episcopal Church

Bladensburg, Maryland

Saturday, May 12, 2001

 

There is no Christianity without paradox.

 

The Cross is itself the great paradox of the universe: that one who is homousios with

the Father ('of his very being') did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,

but emptied himself to take the form of a slave. And being found in human form,

humbled himself even to accepting death on a cross.

 

Catholic Anglicans have more reason than most to look into the heart of paradox.

 

Living as we have claimed to do, in what Evelyn Underhill called 'a respectable

suburb of the Catholic Church', we have always been open to the ridicule of those

who suppose themselves to dwell in the throbbing center (or, more especially, of

those who have recently moved house in that direction).

 

But proper people suspect that to deny one's origins may be to flaunt one's

pretensions.

 

I am not saying that God condemns anyone to perpetual suburbanity: All are called to

be free citizens with the saints in the Heavenly City. But there is nothing to be gained

by denying or being ashamed of the humble origins from which one began the

journey: or ashamed of the good people whose guidance set one's feet in the way.

 

So, at this great gathering, at which we reflect upon our future together as Catholic

Anglicans we should begin by rejoicing in our

inheritance. Listen, then to some words of that great Anglican layman of the

seventeenth century, Sir Thomas Browne:

 

'But because the name of a Christian is become too generall to

expresse our faith, there being a Geography of Religions as well as Lands, and

every Clime distinguished not onely by their lawes and limits, but

circumscribed by their doctrines and rules of Faith; To be particular, I

am of that reformed new-cast Religion, wherein I mislike nothing but

the name, of the same beliefe our Saviour taught, the Apostles

disseminated, the Fathers authorised, and the Martyrs confirmed; but by the sinister

ends of Princes, the ambition and avarice of Prelates, and the fatall

corruption of times, so decaied, impaired, and fallen from its native

beauty, that it required the carefull and charitable hands of these

times to restore it to its primitive integrity: Now the accidentall

occasion whereon, the slender meanes whereby, the low and abject

condition of the person by whom so good a worke was set on foot,

which in our adversaries beget contempt and scorn, fills me with wonder,

and is the very same objection the insolent Pagans first cast at Christ and

his Disciples.'

 

 

Note, if you will, all the paradoxes in that! And note, too, that Browne links them at

the end with the true and eternal paradox of the Cross.

 

Four centuries after Thomas Browne had delineated a simple Norfolk Doctor's faith,

Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher made his famous claims about the catholicity of the

Anglican position. We have no doctrines, he claimed, or orders, other than those of

the undivided Church.

 

I was brought up on that. I believed it. The paradox is that I still believe it and yet,

now, I know it not to be true.

 

Geoffrey Fisher died in 1972, and what a long way we have come since then!

Sometimes I am dazzled by the sheer audacity of those who have so successfully

brought novelty into the heart of this Church's life.

 

First, it was marriage.

 

Sacred Scripture begins with the creation of man and woman in the image and likeness

of God and concludes with a vision of 'the wedding feast of the Lamb'. The Lord

Jesus (as even Frank Griswold is prepared to admit) was pretty definitive about

matrimony. He proclaimed it, afresh, against all the customs of the days of his own

incarnation, both pagan and Jewish, to be a creation ordinance. 'It was because you

were so unteachable that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives; but it was not like

this from the beginning. Now I say to you ...'

 

Later on, Paul proclaimed marriage to be a living image of the true union of heaven

and earth; and that consummate phrase maker Tom Cranmer epitomised the whole fifth

chapter to the Ephesians in unforgettable words: 'signifying unto us that mystical

union that is betwixt Christ and his Church.'

 

But all that went by the board a long time ago. Now second and third marriages are

common among Episcopalians (even among bishops). And the Presiding Bishop can

boast that the change was so easily made, and so readily acceptable, that it is a model

for forthcoming and inevitable changes over gay sex.

 

Then it was Holy Orders.

 

The orders of the Church, of bishop, priest and deacon, are not her own creation.

 

They come as a gift. And a primary part of that gracious gift is the gift of unity.

Because orders are the means by which the unique and

unchanging priesthood of Christ is everywhere exercised in a changing world, their

continuity with the past and their universal acceptability in the present are part of their

essential nature and purpose.

 

It is a source of comfort to us, and admonition to him, that Jack Iker's orders, as he

comes to this alter today, are one with those of Ignatius of Antioch as he crossed the

Empire to greet martyrdom at the lion's mouth, one with those of both Thomas

Cranmer and John Fisher as they faced one another across the great divide of the

Reformation, and one with those of the Bishop of Aipo-Rongo, who will tomorrow

celebrate the Mass with his people after a two-day journey into the rain forests of

Papua New Guinea.

 

But all that unity is gone. It was destroyed in the first ordinations of women nearly

thirty years ago, when we did what the Church had never done and what the greater

part of it can never accept.

 

And if you were to ask me which is more destructive of Catholic Order, the decision

of your General Convention to make the innovation mandatory or the pronouncements

of the Eames Commission that those orders have 'a degree of provisionality', I have to

say that I cannot tell. What I do know is that those orders were not received in a spirit

of Christ-like humility, but in one of triumph and self-consciousness.

 

The women ordained in Philadelphia greeted the gift of the Holy Spirit with

clenched-fist salutes; and the first woman bishop in America, aping the godless

Napoleon, put the mitre on her own head, to the unforgettable encouragement of

Bishop Ed Browning 'Go for It!'.

 

Ours is a religion of signs made actual. No good can come of such things.

 

And now it is gay marriages.

 

And what are we to say of that? In a world which is starved of love, Christians are

called to compassion. We are not to judge, lest we be judged; nor inquire imperiously

into the hearts and motives and bedrooms of others, for fear that the final judge, who

knows us through and through, will at the last condemn us for the sins and misplaced

affections which we know to be our own.

 

But we cannot sanctify what scripture so plainly forbids. Hear some wise words of

the great Lutheran theologian Wolfhart Pannenburg:

 

'Since on this principle the Bible is not time-bound, Jesus' word is

the

foundation and the criterion for all Christian pronouncements on

sexuality, not just marriage in particular, but our entire creaturely

identities as sexual beings. According to Jesus' teaching, human

sexuality as male and female is intended for the indissoluble

fellowship

of marriage. This standard informs Christian teaching about the entire

domain of sexual behavior.'

 

 

Brothers and sisters, I am all for casuistry (which G. K. Chesterton, you will

remember, defined as a science like botany; the science of

finding beautiful things in unexpected places). But there is no casuistry without law,

no compassion which means anything at all, without an ethical framework in which

mercy is given meaning and context.

 

The whole world, in its sin and perplexity, cries out for recognition: "Love me. Accept

Me." Jesus is the workhorse which every partisan

interest seeks to hitch to its bandwagon. But we -- you and I -- know him to be his

own man-- that is why we follow him. In this matter, as all others, follow him we

must -- or perish.

 

Now I should say that I do not suppose for one moment that any of these things --

marriage discipline the maleness of the priesthood, the understanding of human

sexuality as a creation ordinance -- is dispensable. Nor can any of these positions be

abandoned. I believe that these issues have assailed the Church in the order of their

logical and doctrinal priority; but that they go together. As doctrinal deviations they

form a set -- a sequence of related concepts, such that you cannot have one without the

other. We have, I believe, no authority to vary any of them. They are doctrines which

have been received and maintained semper, ubique et ab omnibus (always,

everywhere and by all). They are not simply random pieces of the family silver, which

can be bartered away in some sort of garage sale as a cheap compromise with

modernity. They are at the heart of what it is to be an obedient Church.

 

So there, then, is the paradox in which we live.

 

We are seeking to be faithful in a church which has self-consciously embraced

infidelity. We supposed, by now, that it must have dawned on almost everybody else

as it has dawned on us that the patron saint of the Presiding Bishop is St. Pandora of

the Box, that well-known non-Virgin and no-Martyr. But it hasn't.

 

So what are we to do?

 

We can, I think, try two solutions. We can seek to escape the paradox, or we can

embrace it. You will not, I think, be surprised when I say that, for my money, they

amount to the same thing.

 

We could seek to escape the paradox by entering another communion; and I certainly

have no intention to criticise those who have done so. I have to say, however, that I

have myself no intention of seeking refuge in a boast smaller than the one in which I

find myself. But is there any vessel afloat which is (in the meaning of the hymn) an

'ark from the ocean's roar'? What besets us, besets them or has done, or will do.

 

On the other hand, we can stay where we are, and be what we are called to be,

witnesses to the faith of Christ.

 

But you are way ahead of me. You know the Greek for 'witness' is 'martyr'; and you

know, in consequence that I am asking of you what only He can ask. But, in his

name, and as Bishop Browning would say: 'Go for it!'.

 

Stay where you are -- be reviled by all, rejected, trampled upon by authority. Nothing

-- I repeat nothing -- you can do would be more

pleasing to Him. When the days seem long, and the nights lonely, and the bishops of

Hell are barking at the door, take down your Bibles and read how it was with Paul:

 

'We do nothing that people might object to, Paul writes, so as not to

bring discredit on our function as servants of God. Instead, we

prove that we are servants of God by great fortitude in times of

suffering, in times of hardship and distress, when we are flogged or

sent to prison, or mobbed; labouring, sleepless, starving. We prove

that we are God's servants by our purity of knowledge; by patience

and kindness; by a spirit of holiness and by a love free from

affectation; by the world of truth and by the power of God; by being

armed with the weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in

the left; prepared for honour or disgrace, for praise or blame; taken

for impostors while we are genuine; obscure yet famous; said to be

dying, and behold we live; rumored to have been executed before

we are sentenced; thought most miserable, yet always rejoicing;

taken for paupers, we make others rich; thought to own nothing and

yet possessing all things.'

 

 

The greatest Anglican preacher of the last century, Fr. Austin Farrer, began a famous

sermon from an inscription on the side of a florist's

van. The van was delivering decorations for a College ball, and was parked below his

windows. The words inscribed were as follows: 'Wreathes and flowers for all

occasions'. That, said Farrer, is what preachers are called to provide: 'wreathes and

flowers for all occasions'.

 

And so I end by fulfilling the preacher's obligation to you. 'Wreathes and flowers'.

We are none of us, I suspect, in a mood for bouquets, (and in any case none of us

deserves them). But where Catholic Anglicanism in America is concerned, let us agree

together today, that funeral wreathes are premature.

 

END